Friday, June 29, 2012

Premarital Relationships: Weekend Homework Assignment

Whether you and your partner are dating, living together, or are recently engaged and in the midst of planning your wedding, premarital relationships are defined by their excitement and newness that many refer to as the “honeymoon” stage. By building Love Maps to develop a deep sense of shared meaning in your relationship – creating shared goals, cultural rituals, and legacies – this “honeymoon” phase never has to end! In fact, if you take time everyday to update your awareness of each other’s inner world by building a culture of appreciation, admiration, fondness, and respect, your relationship will actually become stronger as the years go on.

In this weekend’s homework assignment, we turn again to the 52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In Card Deck. These open-ended questions help to create friendship and intimacy by encouraging you to know each other deeply, particularly in the areas of romance, social life, work, and money. These questions can help you determine your compatibility before you take your relationship to the next level, encourage open discussion about sensitive topics, and tackle tough issues before they become emotionally charged. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers – each question presents a unique opportunity to grow in your relationship together.

Questions about Romance:

  • Describe your vision – rituals, vows, and logistics – for your marriage ceremony. Who will plan it? Who will pay for it? 
  • What does loving each other mean to you? In what ways does your partner demonstrate love for you? 
  • What made you decide to get married? What do you expect will change when you get married?

Questions about Social Life: 
  • Where do you want to live? City, country, apartment, house, other? 
  • Describe how you picture your day-to-day life together. What meals do you plan to eat together? Apart? 
  • Which friends of your partner’s do you like most? Least?

Questions about Work:
  • What are your expectations for your partner’s career success? How does his or her level of ambition differ from yours? 
  • What reasons might there be for one or both of you to cut back on work hours? 
  • How do you feel about utilizing childcare, daycare, nannies, etc?

Questions about Money: 

  • How much money is “enough” to have a child? What kind of allowance or financial provision will the children receive? 
  • How do you set boundaries around the requirements of your job? Do you equate earnings with success? 
  • How will you decide whose money purchases common and shared items?

Remember to give yourself and your partner time to process the emotional reactions caused by your conversations. Listen intently to your partner, remember their answers, and, most importantly, have fun!

Have a great weekend,
M. Fulwiler 
TGI Staff 

Photo Source

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Premarital Relationships: Building Love Maps

As our own Laura Heck, MA, LMFTA mentioned in her guest posting on Monday, almost half of marriages end in divorce. With such odds, the idea of marriage may seem like a recipe for disaster, a naïve and idealistic dream which will inevitably end at best in disappointment and, at worst, in the destruction of your life. Though there is plenty of evidence for such a bleak view of marriage in this day and age, long-term commitment to the one you love need not be a gamble.

Whether you feel that you and your partner are sailing swiftly through clear waters or are perilously adrift, a
pplying Dr. Gottman’s principle of building Love Maps can help to build the friendship and intimacy in your relationship. In our research, we have discovered that a very powerful predictor of relationship stability is whether couples allocate "cognitive room" for their relationship and for the world of their partner. 

The Gottman Institute has developed a number of products and resources that emphasize building Love Maps. The 52 Questions Card Deck is one of the most useful. In this post, we 
invite you to discover your similarities and your differences in the world of romance with your partner. Exercises from the 52 Questions Card Deck can be a source of joy, and more importantly, an invitation to further discovery. If practiced with warmth, curiosity, and affection, these questions will strengthen your intimate connection and initiate an exchange of personal stories. To build deeper meaning with your loved one in your shared relationship, and to learn more about each other and yourself,  ask each other some of the following questions:
  • What feelings and thoughts race through your mind when you anticipate seeing your partner soon?
  • What are some of your partner’s quirks? What kinds of humor do the two of you enjoy? 
  • Do the two of you diverge in your communication style when you are being playful together? Is there anything that doesn’t work? How could it be improved?
  • What does loving each other mean to you? How do you and your partner demonstrate your love for each other? How do you show your appreciation?
  • What are three of your partner’s deepest hopes, aspirations, or dreams?
  • How do the two of you feel about sharing your past sexual histories? Do any aspects of your past or current sexual experiences make either of you uncomfortable?
  • How do the two of you feel about having children? Pets? How strong are your positions on these questions? In what circumstances do you imagine you could change your mind?

While these conversations can be playful and fun, it is important to keep a few things in mind. Most importantly, remember that discussing these topics with your partner, especially if you run into areas of disagreement, can be challenging and overwhelming. Give yourself and your partner time to process the emotional reactions caused by your conversations. Don't rush! Take your time to find out if "happily ever after" is in the cards for you.

For Friday, look forward to similar exercises that you and your partner can enjoy together as you embark upon your journey to explore and deeply understand each other’s feelings and goals, particularly in the areas of social life, work, and money. To make sure you play with a full deck, whether you are married, considering marriage, or just moving in together, get your copy of all 52 Questions here!

Happy Wednesday,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Monday, June 25, 2012

Laura Heck, MA, LMFTA: Integrating Gottman Method into Premarital Counseling

Laura Heck, MA, LMFTA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate in private practice offering individual, couple and family therapy in the Greater Seattle Area. Laura specializes in premarital counseling and self-esteem building in adolescent teenage girls. Laura is also an employee of TGI in the Products Department, assisting with the creation of therapeutic tools for clinicians and couples. She will complete Level 3 of her Gottman Method Training in October 2012. She strives to make psychological “geek speak” engaging, entertaining and informative to those who don’t speak psycho-babble. Check out more of Laura’s ideas at

Integrating Gottman Method into 
Premarital Counseling
Laura Heck, MA, LMFTA

Considering that half of all divorces will occur within the first 7 years of marriage, premarital counseling seems like a no-brainer in today's world. My practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist is focused on proactively transforming nearly newlyweds into competent love birds by teaching The Gottman Method: Dr. John Gottman’s key, research-based principles for making marriage long-lasting and harmonious. Here are a few of the skills I focus on with premarital couples in my own practice:

Building Love Maps: It does not seem to matter whether couples have been cohabiting for a decade or are fresh faced 20-somethings - they still manage to update their love maps by going through the Love Map Card Deck. I host a weekly small group of premarital couples and use the Love Map Card Deck to play the “Newlywed” game. Questions that stumped couples this week were: What is your partner’s social security number? and What is your partner’s secret ambition? Do you know the answers to these questions?

Practice Good Communication Skills: From the very beginning, I start building on the necessary skills for good communication, leading up to mastery of the stress reducing conversation. Key components to good communication are:
  • Listen without offering advice or trying to solve your partner’s problems.
  • Communicate empathy for the speaker. Ex: “That is stressful for you. I’m sorry you had a rough week at work.”
  • Listen to your partner as well as you listen to your boss. Often times we communicate more clearly with our c0-workers than our significant others. Remember to give your partner the same undivided attention you would give your boss. Turn off those cell phones, televisions, and lap tops and be sure to maintain eye contact. Let your partner know you are listening by nodding your head or giving verbal cues that indicate you are following.
  • Communicate your feelings. I’m always surprised how often couples express their thoughts, desires, and wishes without expressing their emotions and feelings. Specifically, I observe many men that start statements with “I feel…” but skip right over the feeling into a thought. It can take quite a bit of coaching to bring men out of their head and into their heart, but once they are able to express the feelings behind their wants and desires, a deeper level of understanding will ensue. I have literally watched women melt as their male partners properly use “I feel” statements.

Start fresh with rituals for connection:
One of the most exciting parts about starting a life together is starting new traditions. How will you celebrate your anniversary? Thanksgiving? What will dinner time be like in your household? What traditions did you enjoy in your family of origin and how would you like to implement them in your new family? I love the open ended questions in the Rituals of Connection Card Deck

Discussing problems or issues: Processing disagreements is stressful enough. When couples have a specific plan for processing disagreements and feel competent in the skills of communicating through conflict, the stress goes right out the window. When the stress is removed, couples are able to think logically through problem solving. 

As with any new skill, the more it is practiced, the easier it becomes. If the goal of premarital counseling is to thoughtfully prepare couples for a lifetime of partnership, Dr. John Gottman’s research and his 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work provide a wonderful model for helping to create a firm foundation for a long lasting and happy marriage. 

I hope that you will join the Gottman Institute and I this week as we continue to discuss the Gottman Method and its application to premarital relationships. Thank you! 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Emotion Coaching Step 5 and Weekend Homework Assignment: Helping The Child Problem Solve & Setting Limits

The last step of Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching system is to set limits while helping your child to problem solve. This should come naturally to any parent, as humans are drawn into the advice-giving stage of problem solving conversations. The conclusions that we have drawn in our own research mirror the findings of popular child psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Ginott, whose communication system involves the following principals:
  • Never deny or ignore a child’s feelings.
  • Only behavior is treated as unacceptable, not the child.
  • Depersonalize negative interactions by mentioning only the problem. Ex: "I see a messy room."
  • Attach rules to things. Ex: "Little sisters are not for hitting."
  • Dependence breeds hostility. Let children do for themselves what they can.
  • Children need to learn to choose, but within the safety of limits. Ex: "Would you like to wear this blue shirt or this red one?"
In today's posting we will describe the five key steps of problem solving discovered by Dr. Gottman in his own research on Emotion Coaching, as well as explore their underlying principles and the effects of their application to your child's development:

1) Set Limits: In the likely event that your journey into the thorny lands of problem solving is made especially prickly by  your child’s misbehavior, it is important to understand the key element of setting limits. The key element of limit setting in this case, contrary to much popular parenting literature, is to avoid harsh criticism of your child’s actions and instead focus on the emotions underlying their behavior. Here, we take Ginott’s advice in making it clear to a child that, although their behavior might not always be acceptable, their feelings and wishes always are. While discipline is necessary in raising your little one, Dr. Gottman makes a further note in his discussion of disciplinary methods.

Note: While a 1990 survey of college students exposed that 93% were spanked as children, the consequences of spanking have been scientifically proven to be troubling. According to Dr. Gottman, past research studies have shown that “spanking teaches, by example, that aggression is an appropriate way to get what you want… [and that it] can have a long term impact as well, and that spanked children, “as teenagers… are more likely to hit their parents… as adults more likely to be violent and tolerate violence in their relationships,” and that “interestingly, studies of parents who have been trained in other methods of child discipline show that once they find effective alternatives, they drop the spanking.” Apparently, more reasonable methods will suffice. As an added bonus, we think your children might be grateful.

2) Identify Goals: If you dive from Setting Limits into Identifying Goals and find yourself floundering about in a whirlpool of confusion, chances are that you dove too fast! Luckily, clambering back up onto the safety of the first step will allow you to avoid the misfortune of drowning. Make sure that you are hearing your child, understanding their feelings, empathizing and labeling them, and generally applying the four steps of Emotion Coaching before embarking on this one with greater confidence. When your child is ready, you can begin to identify goals by clarifying and understanding their ideas in solving the problem at hand.

3) Think of Possible Solutions: Without taking too great of an authoritative role in the problem solving process, thereby inundating your child with your own ideas for possible solutions, make suggestions to your child at a rate which they can process. It is important to treat a 5 year old differently than a 15 year old when making problem solving suggestions. As a child grows up and matures, the number of solutions you can offer to come to problem resolution will increase. Few children under ten are equipped for abstract thinking, and can only deal with a few ideas at a time, while older children are able to engage in brainstorming and have the ability to understand the theoretical implications of similar experiences they (or you!) have encountered in previous problem solving attempts.

4) Evaluate Proposed Solutions Based on Your Family’s Values: This step is relatively self-explanatory. Asking questions about the ramifications of possible solutions according to your family’s moral or ethical system will help to instill your family's values in your child. If a kid wants to deal with Johnny’s ill-advised teasing at school by asking all the other kids to ignore Johnny at recess the next day, you might want to ask the following questions: “Would that be fair?” “Would it work long-term?” “How would Johnny feel about that?” “Is there anything else you can think of?” Hopefully, a less absurdly ineffective plan can be devised. Luckily, talking through problem solving in the context of your family’s values is a classic example of two birds/one stone: if you try to encourage your child to practice an abstract ethical system in a theoretical context, you are figuratively throwing a very heavy stone into an endless void. Young kids have little experience with hypotheticals and abstract concepts, but inspiring your little ones to see these values at play in a  situation they are currently dealing with is an incredibly effective method of teaching your child about ethics and simultaneously solving the problem at hand!

5) Help Your Child Choose A Solution: The final step in Dr. Gottman’s problem solving system is the one with the greatest potential to empower kids dealing with difficult situations. While enhancing their abilities and confidence in thinking for themselves, you should feel free to give advice and offer up anecdotes from your own experience in dealing with similar problems. Talk about what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Once you have chosen a solution the two of you can agree upon, you can work together in figuring out a plan for its implementation. Remember that we all learn from our mistakes! This is not the last time your kid will face a difficult situation, but if you work through the relatively minor problems they experience while they are young, they will be better equipped to deal with more intense predicaments and moral quandaries later in life.

This weekend, practice putting Dr. Gottman's 5 Key Steps of Emotion Coaching together, and see the difference this research-based system can make in your family's life. If you want to find out more about raising emotionally intelligent children and teaching them skills they can carry with them from toddler years into adulthood, see Dr. Gottman's clinically recommended book, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. Also, be sure to check out Drs. John and Julie Gottman's new Emotion Coaching Workshops! While the July workshop is already sold out, you can join our wait list, or come to workshops in Seattle or North Bend on August 12th or October 9th. Attendance is limited, so get your tickets soon!

Next week, will will shift the conversation from Emotion Coaching to a discussion of the Gottman method as it applies to pre-marital relationships!

Have a great weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Emotion Coaching Step 4: Helping Your Child To Find Words For Their Emotions

Our research shows that adults can help kids who struggle with moments of emotional intensity, largely due to children's natural inexperience in understanding what on earth they are going through. Youngsters are new to the experience of emotion, and their lack of comprehension of their feelings may lead to the misconception that their emotions are unnatural. This is where Step 4 of our Emotion Coaching system comes in: 
Helping Your Child To Find Words For Their Emotions

According to Dr. Gottman, “providing words [to describe the problem] can help children transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of life… [something that] everybody has and everybody can handle.” Remarkably, research studies have shown that expressing empathy while giving kids the tools to label their emotions with words not only helps to heighten their confidence in dealing with everyday problems, but is also effective in soothing their nervous system and allowing them to recover faster from stressful events! Here, we will guide you through an example of how this strategy works:

Don’s nine-year-old, Garnett, comes home one day in a funk. Dropping his skateboard with a crash in the middle of the hallway, getting mud all over the floor, he throws himself into his room and turns up the music. After tiptoeing around his son throughout dinnertime as per his wife’s advice, Don loses patience with the boy’s monosyllabic moodiness and accosts him on his way out the door. “Where are you going, kid?” “To Mickey’s,” Garnett offers sullenly. “Is anything wrong?” After a few minutes of meandering aimlessly in circles, Garnett finally relents. “I failed my math test today.” What should Don do with this admission? His initial disappointment and frustration are replaced with confidence as he remembers the fourth step of Emotion Coaching. He has a way to turn the situation around.

Though it is obvious that adults continue to struggle with relation to their emotions (wanting to understand them, not wanting to understand them, wanting them to not exist, pretending they don’t exist, trying to frantically wave their arms so that they would stop existing), it would be nonsensical to think that children and adults are on the same page. Don can say with relative self-awareness that his son’s confession of failing a math test in school makes him feel frustrated and upset. If he looks deeper, he may notice that he also feels kind of guilty and irresponsible. He may notice a twinge of anxiety about his parenting skills. Did he tutor Garnett enough over the summer when he was struggling with Geometry? Why didn’t Garnett come to him sooner? Is Garnett afraid to come to him with problems in general? Garnett’s silence, on the other hand, communicates a very different message: the boy has no idea how to deal with the situation, and he may not understand why.

To help his son, Don’s job as an Emotion Coach is to find out how his son is feeling. The process is NOT about what Don thinks Garnett OUGHT to be feeling about the problem he is faced with, but about working together to determine the true emotions in the situation. Here is how the conversation might go:

Don: “It sounds like you feel upset about the math test.”
Garnett: “Yeah... I feel like I could have done better. I should have studied more. Jimmy got an A. He told everyone.”
Don: “I know how that goes. I used to HATE it when I had messed up on something and other kids shouted out their good grades. It made me so jealous.”
Garnett: “It’s sooo annoying! It felt really bad... I guess I was jealous.”
Don: “That’s totally normal! We all go through it sooner or later. Is this all about Jimmy, though?”
Garnett: “No... I feel like I should have studied more.”
Don: “So you feel kinda guilty?”
Garnett: “Yeah...”
Don: “Would it help if we went through some Geometry problems together this weekend?”
Garnett: “Could we? Thanks... that would be so great.”

Knowing that his Dad has been through the same experience, and that it made him feel the same way, allows Garnett to realize that his experience is normal. That he isn’t a creature from outer space. The words Don offers to his son in describing the emotions Garnett is feeling makes these feelings easier to handle, and makes the boy see that this episode is just a part of the normal human experience. That it isn’t the end of the world. It also helps him to trust his Dad more - to see him as an ally. Together they can practice some math problems and work through the situation as a team.

The fourth step of Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching system is one in which you, as a parent, have the opportunity to help your child through difficult moments in a manner that is both incredibly easy for you, and astoundingly useful for them. If you practice it often, it can increase not only your child’s ability to cope with problems, but bring the two of you closer together!

In this Friday’s blog post, look forward to Step 5, the last step of Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching system. We hope that with all of the tools we have provided to help you become a better Emotion Coach, you and your children can build confidence both in yourselves and as a team! After all, isn't that what family's for?

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Monday, June 18, 2012

Emotion Coaching Step 3: Treating a Child’s Feelings with Empathetic Listening and Validation

In last week’s blog postings, we walked you through the first and second steps of Dr. Gottman’s 5 Steps of Effective Emotion Coaching. If you didn't get a chance to practice Steps 1 and 2 over Father's Day weekend, as presented in our weekend homework assignment, we hope you take advantage of the tools and skills presented in this week's postings to strengthen your relationship with your children. To build upon last week’s discussion, today we present you with Step 3: Treating a Child’s Feelings with Empathetic Listening and Validation.

Last week, we talked about the importance of empathizing with your youngster. Just as the common saying goes “you hear me, but you’re not listening,” seeing your child’s emotional reactions is not the same as perceiving them. To young kids, the complexity of their emotions may feel impenetrably confusing. Asking them to explain why or how they feel something is often an exercise in futility. They have natural difficulty understanding how they feel, because they lack experience in comprehending or articulating what they are going through. As you may have noticed, attempting to talk with a kid and pinpoint their feelings may feel like a wild goose chase through the deepest, darkest woods.

Luckily, Dr. Gottman’s research has illuminated a way out of this goose-ridden quandary. To truly connect with your child when in a psychologically difficult moment, it is important to read between the lines. Rather than asking a child how they feel, observe them—their facial expressions, body language, gestures, and the tone of their voice. If your toddler is crying, she probably doesn’t know why. Asking her won’t help. But age is not the whole story here. Asking your twelve-year-old son, as he bounces his knee erratically in the waiting room at the dentist’s, if he feels nervous will likely elicit a negative response (perhaps a hearty rendition of “Duh, Mom!” accompanied by an eye roll.) Instead of deploying the methods of the Spanish Inquisition or asking questions to which you already know the answers, Dr. Gottman suggests a combination of attentiveness, offerings of simple observations, and validation of your child's emotions in difficult moments. We will illustrate this method with the example below:

Frieda’s daughter, Agatha, ten, ambushes her as soon as she walks in the door from a long day at the office. All rage and tears, Agatha follows behind her mother as she walks to the living room, angrily recounting her “awful” piano lesson a few hours earlier. As Frieda gathers from the tirade, punctuated by intermittent stomps and declarations of quitting immediately, she discovers that her daughter’s instructor made some negative comments about Agatha’s practicing. Or lack thereof. Feeling irritated by her daughter’s constant complaining about the lessons she had begged for forever, Frieda remembers the third step of Emotion Coaching and takes a deep breath. “You seem frustrated with your piano teacher right now,” Frieda says, “Is that true?” “Yeah! And she made me feel so guilty,” her daughter answers. Seeing her daughter's reddened cheeks and teary eyes, her mother sits down beside her on the bed. She strokes Agatha's hair and talks to her seriously: “I hate it when people make me feel that way. It really stinks. What do you think would make you feel less frustrated with piano?” A few thoughtful moments later, Agatha excitedly asks to play a duet with Frieda for her next recital. As Frieda agrees, her daughter grins. Seeing her Mom as an ally gives Agatha the confidence to work through this temporary impediment, and to continue in pursuit of her love of creating music. Harmony is restored.

Frieda’s approach worked because she paid attention to her daughter’s intense emotional state: angry, frustrated, guilty, upset. Instead of letting herself be overcome with total exasperation at her daughter, Frieda turned a potentially difficult moment around completely: 
Instead of asking Agatha if she felt riled up (obviously, Mom!), she offered a simple observation of Agatha’s feelings and validated what her daughter was experiencing by sharing a time when she felt the same way in her own childhood. Instead of using the short-term “fix” of quelling her daughter’s anger with an ice cream cone after dinner or a promise of a trip to the movies, by applying Emotion Coaching to this potentially volatile situation, Frieda made positive strides - both in her own relationship with her daughter and in her daughter’s relationship with her piano lessons. Empowered and re-invigorated, both mother and daughter felt more confident in their shared bond. 

Try t
reating your child’s feelings with empathetic listening and validation this week, and see the difference Dr. Gottman’s research can make in your life! This Wednesday, look forward to Step 4: Labeling Emotions in Words Children Understand.

All for Now,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Friday, June 15, 2012

Weekend Homework Assignment: Emotion Coaching Steps 1 & 2

In today's Weekend Homework Assignment, we’d like to share a few simple ways in which you can apply Dr. Gottman’s first two principles of Emotion Coaching in your own lives. With Father’s Day this weekend, what could be a better gift for Dad than strengthening the bond between him and the kids? By putting the following Emotion Coaching tips and strategies into practice this holiday weekend, you will not only improve your relationship with your children in the short-term, but you will also build a foundation for the enrichment of your family’s emotional connections for years to come:

  • If you have youngster at home, try playing a game with some stuffed animals. Enact a scene in which one of your child’s toys gets angry, or sad, or in some way upset, and talk through various ways in which the other stuffed animals could help the first one get through the problem. Sharing fantasies and role playing is often the best way for little ones to learn about emotions on their own - engaging in imaginative play with them allows you to be a part of this amazing process.
  • If you notice your child expressing any kind of strong emotion while spending time with them on an outing or at home, show genuine interest in their experience. Engage with them in a conversation about it in an attempt to help them express why they are feeling this way. Ask them questions depending on what emotions you see your child expressing: "Are you feeling scared right now?" "Was that really exciting" "Do you want to come over and cuddle with me?" Put yourself in their shoes, making sure to be gentle. As you might recall, being a kid can be overwhelming.
  • When you are on a car trip, out taking a walk, or find yourself in a similar situation in which you have time on your hands with your little one, play a storytelling game - invent fictional characters who, at certain points in the story, experience various emotional and psychological difficulties. Work together playfully to find solutions to the characters' problems.
Remember, these tips are not for “one-weekend-only” use AND they are not “sold separately.” To make a lasting Emotion Coaching impact on your child, be sure to remember these principles and carry them with you in the future! As the years go by, your kids will grow to understand themselves and others with greater ease, and begin to apply the knowledge you imparted to them to their lives all on their own. Maybe one day, they’ll use these steps in raising their own kids!

To learn more about the many ways in which your family relationships can affect your child’s life - their future success, ability to relate to others, and long term happiness - be sure to watch the following video, and follow our YouTube channel.

Have a wonderful weekend,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Emotion Coaching Step 2: Seeing Expressions of Emotion as Opportunities for Teaching and Intimacy

The second step of Emotion Coaching, according to Dr. Gottman, is seeing your child’s expressions of emotion as opportunities for teaching and intimacy. Rather than seeing negative expressions of emotion as a problem that needs to be “dealt with” or “fixed,” or even as the result of some kind of parental incompetence, the realization that such moments can be used to teach your child may come as a huge relief. Our research has shown that these are the times in which your youngster needs your support the most. Working through your child's emotions with them, teaching them how to process their emotions, and showing your care for them will allow them to grow in a multitude of ways. For example, it will help them to become better at self-soothing and they will learn to work through problems themselves. Improving your child’s ability to navigate low-intensity situations, such as the loss of an ice cream cone, a poor grade on a test, or a trivial argument with a friend, will encourage them to come to you during more difficult times in their life. Their trust in you will also allow the intimacy in your relationship to grow.

Now we’d like to show you how to put Dr. Gottman's second step of Emotion Coaching to the test! In the following example - which may feel all too familiar to you parents out there - we’ll walk you through our method for handling potentially stressful and emotion-fraught situations in a way which teaches your child that you are there for them, so that they may learn to navigate such difficulties on their own in the future:

Kendra’s six-year-old son, Ben, has always wanted a dog. Really, really wanted one. A dog person herself, she would love to make his dream a reality, but living in a small apartment in the city makes their mutual desire impossibile. Taking a walk in the park one day, she and Ben spot a few youngsters gallivanting joyfully through the playground with several adorable puppies. He predictably bursts out crying. At the end of her own emotional leash, feeling helpless and exhausted, Kendra cannot believe that she has to deal with "the conversation" all over again. But this time, with the help of Emotion Coaching, she has the tools to lead it in a different, more positive direction.

Bending down to eye level with her son, Kendra asks him what’s wrong. “All the other kids have dogs,” he mumbles through tears, “If you really loved me you’d let me have one too!” “I do love you, more than anything in world,” Kendra says, stroking Ben’s hair. “I want a dog too, and I really wish we could have one right now. Maybe when we move out of this apartment, we can think about getting ourselves a puppy of our own! Wouldn’t that be great?” The boy nods. “Those kids out there probably live in a place where their puppies can roam free. You don’t want the puppy we get to be stuck inside, miserable, with no place to go, do you?” Her son shakes his head. 

Ben is still upset, but he is no longer sobbing hysterically. His mother’s words have soothed him temporarily, but their long-term effect will be much greater. As he watches the children play with their dog, and imagines having one of his  own someday, he sees that his Mom understands him and feels that his feelings are being taken seriously. This six-year-old has learned a little bit about the values of patience and compromise. In the future, when the sight of another kid and his dog trigger his envy and sadness, he will remember his mother’s words, and their effect will last – he will feel more confident in his ability to soothe himself with the gain of some perspective on his short-term desires.

Seeing your child's expressions of emotion as opportunities for teaching and intimacy will allow the two of you to build mutual trust while also relieving your relationship of anxiety and frustration in difficult times. When you observe your child struggling with a problem and expressing fear, sadness, or anger, take the moment as an opportunity for their emotional growth, and for the growth of your relationship.

This Friday, look forward to some simple exercises you can use to apply the first two steps of Emotion Coaching to better equip yourselves and your children in handling stressful situations. Next week, we will go on to Emotion Coaching steps three and four: validating your child’s feelings and helping them label their emotions in words that they can understand.

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa
TGI Staff

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Emotion Coaching, Step 1: Empathy

In last Friday’s blog, we promised to dive with you into a deeper explanation of steps you can use in becoming a better Emotion Coach. By working through the simple exercises we will show you in the next couple of weeks, we hope that you will see an easy way to transform potentially intimidating and murky waters of conversation with your child into a clear, beautiful bonding experience for both of you. This Monday, we will show you how to begin navigating these waters with the first step of Dr. John Gottman’s Emotion Coaching process: Empathy.

Imagine, for a moment, Mark and his seven-year-old son, Creighton. After hours of standing in line for a ride at Disneyland, sweating profusely in his khakis on what feels like the hottest of all possible hot days, they have finally reached the front of the line. Creighton looks up at Mark, tugging with panic at his sleeve, and with eyes big as saucers says the last words Mark wants to hear: “Daddy, I’m scared.”

Imagine another example: Ruth and her five-year-old daughter, Gabby. Coming home from work late one night, Ruth is tackled by Gabby, who demands a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Exhausted, but unable to resist her adorable youngster, Ruth relents. Five minutes later, forgetting to lose the game to her daughter, she is startled by a sudden sob. Gabby is crushed.

Lastly, consider the case of Linda and her ten-year-old son, Tommy. Coming home from a fifth grade class outing to the zoo, he is unusually quiet. Assuaged by his mother’s questions, “How did it go? Did you have fun with your friends? Tell me all about it!” Tommy squirms and awkwardly complains that he was avoiding the Reptile Room when one of the bullies in his class called him a baby.

What do all of these examples have in common? They are universal, extremely familiar, everyday expressions of a child’s desire for their parent’s support. They are cries for sympathy and understanding. When children show their parents vulnerabilities, they want their parents to be their allies. As the above examples show, it can be difficult for parents to respond in these emotionally charged moments. Common societal misconceptions are at play here, as well as basic human psychology: parents often fear losing control of themselves or allowing their children to lose control of their negative emotions, and it is easy to fall into the trap of using distraction techniques to pacify a child who is upset. “Here, honey, stop crying, we’ll get ice cream on our way home!” Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, these techniques are only temporary “solutions” to the “problem.” Research shows that emotional awareness does not have to be accompanied by the feeling of wearing your heart on your sleeve. It does not have to involve ripping your soul out and exposing all of your vulnerabilities to someone else. Evidence shows that children who cannot look to their parents for true understanding and support feel more vulnerable and out of control in these moments. Dr. John Gottman describes children who have non-emotion coaching parents as growing up in a “make believe home.”

Let’s return to our scenarios. In Mark and Creighton’s case, Daddy is stressed out and hot and irritable and all kinds of frustrated with his son for revealing his second thoughts about the Disneyland ride. If you haven’t spent a lot of time around children, think back to that old adage - a kid’s mother gets him dressed up in layer upon layer of warm clothing, and the moment before he’s all ready to go play in the snow outside, he miraculously discovers the sudden and overwhelming desire to use the bathroom. Though the child in the well-known anecdote has physical need, Creighton’s emotional need is just as significant. If his father calls him a baby, or ridicules his fear out of annoyance, the lessons that Creighton will learn are that his emotions are unreasonable, shouldn’t be shown to anyone, and are fundamentally undesirable and problematic.  Now imagine his father leaning down and saying, “Yeah, kid, I used to be afraid of some rides too! This one is really big and scary, huh? Do you still want to go on it with me or do you want to try a smaller one?” Creighton’s trust in his dad will be affirmed. He will feel safe in expressing his fear, and he will gain a greater understanding of his feelings and the awareness that he can deal with them.

Now take the case of Ruth and Gabby: Ruth is exhausted from work and caves in to her daughter’s desire for a game, which ends in tears when Gabby loses. As an Emotion Coach, what would Ruth do? She wouldn’t attempt to pacify Gabby with a cookie or a promise of a trip to the park the next day. She would sit down next to her daughter and ask her about how she is feeling. She would try to understand why Gabby is so upset, patiently listening to her daughter’s responses and helping her work through her emotional state. She might ask, “What’s wrong, babe? Are you upset because you lost the game? Losing sucks, I know. I hate losing. Maybe we could practice tomorrow and you could beat me! That always helps!” Like Creighton, Gabby would feel that her mother is aware of her emotions, that they are real and important and deserving of compassion and empathy, that all humans have them. She will be a little further in gaining an invaluable skill-set - understanding herself and others.

Now that we have gone through these two examples, the method that Linda should use in approaching her son Tommy’s experience with a bully at the zoo should be seem relatively clear. Already shamed and embarrassed by his classmate, Tommy worries that his mother will also misunderstand him and cause him further discomfort. If she uses Emotion Coaching, she can turn the whole experience around. She needs only to think of the first step, empathy. When she puts herself in Tommy’s shoes, she may remember what it was like for her to be bullied as a child, thinking back to a time when she felt attacked or put down by someone. What she most likely wanted in that moment was understanding and support – in short, the comfort of being told that she was not an alien life form, that she was “OK.” By imagining how Tommy must feel, she will see the dangers of calling him out for not defending himself, and instead realize that the best she can offer him is her compassion and sympathy.

Parenting is hard work. The stress it brings into your life can either drive you crazy or pay off in remarkable ways. Use Emotion Coaching and empathy in your conversations with your child, and see the differences it makes in difficult moments – experience the growth of your relationship and the deepening of both your and your child’s understanding of your emotions. Look forward to this Wednesday’s blog post, exploring the second step of Emotion Coaching: Intimacy and Teaching.

Enjoy this beautiful sunshine!

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa, 

TGI Staff

Friday, June 8, 2012

Weekend Homework Assignment: An Introduction to Emotion Coaching

When Dr. Gottman began his research with children, exploring and identifying the best methods for raising an emotionally intelligent child, most of the psychological literature available on parenting was restricted to the managing of a child’s misbehavior. The common notion that “children are our future” puts a lot of pressure on parents to do their best with their kids, but unfortunately buying a veritable library of parenting books is often not the best idea. Many books on parenting seem to take a great deal of “evidence” from popular myths, common misconceptions, and personal anecdotes. Recognizing the limitations of this narrow perspective, Dr. Gottman undertook a variety of scientific studies, which led him to the conclusion that the key to good parenting lies in understanding the emotional source of problematic behavior. He performed a detailed laboratory examination of children whose parents interacted with their emotions in various styles. The conclusions he reached were striking.

Dr. Gottman identified four "types" of parents in his research that reflect stereotypes we often learn ourselves, or from our peers, as children:

  • The Dismissing Parent disengages, ridicules or curbs all negative emotions, feels uncertainty and fears feeling out of control, uses distraction techniques, feels that emotions are toxic or unhealthy, uses the passage of time as a cure-all replacement for problem solving. 
    : Children learn that there is something wrong with them, cannot regulate their emotions, feel that what they are feeling is not appropriate, not right, and abnormal.
  • The Disapproving Parent is similar to the dismissing parent but more negative, judgmental and critical, controlling, manipulative, authoritative, overly concerned with discipline and strangely unconcerned with the meaning of a child’s emotional expression. 
    : Similar to the dismissing parenting techniques.
  • The Laissez- Faire Parent (is endlessly permissive, offers little to no guidance about problem solving or understanding emotions, does not set any limits on behavior, encourages “riding out” of emotions until they are out of the way and out of sight).
    : Kids can’t concentrate, can’t get along with other others or form friendships, can’t regulate their emotions in a healthy way.

The fourth and last "type" of parent identified by Dr. Gottman is not a common stereotype, perhaps because it isn’t negative, or because when we were kids, playing with Tommy and Phoebe on the playground, they didn’t really understand what made their parents so “good.” This “good” parent is what Dr. Gottman calls The Emotion Coach. When you look back on memories of your own childhood, you may recognize that some of the strategies below were used by your parents when you felt the closest to them – when you felt that they could really relate to you, when you were truly understood.

The five essential steps of Emotion Coaching are as follows:
  • Be aware of your child’s emotion
  • Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching
  • Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
  • Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
  • Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately

Effects of Emotion Coaching: Your child’s mastery of understanding and regulating their emotions will help them to succeed in life in a myriad of different ways – they will be more self-confident, perform better in social and academic situations, and even become physically healthier.

This weekend, when your child expresses negative emotions about something, or misbehaves in some manner, try to figure out the underlying cause of their feelings. Put the steps of Emotion Coaching to work in your relationship with your child. Try the following exercises in the next few days, and discover the benefits of these strategies!

  • Show your child respect and understanding in moments when they feel misunderstood, upset, or frustrated. Talk through their feelings with them and try to understand their source.
  • Be aware of your child’s responses to your method of working through the moment with them. 
  • In difficult interactions, make your child feels your empathy, by patiently validating their feelings and getting to the root of their expression.
  • Instead of focusing on your parental agenda in these situations, show your child that you respect their attempts to solve problems, and guide them with trust and affection. Work through these experiences together.

We hope that these exercises help you to form a closer connection to your child. In next Monday’s post, we will engage in a more detailed analysis of Emotion Coaching strategies and explain why they work so extraordinarily well in parenting! Throughout our posts next week look forward to an explanation of more detailed methods you can use to engage with both your children and your mate, so that your bonds may be filled with feelings of mutual understanding, camaraderie, intimacy, and respect. 

Have a great weekend!
Ellie Lisitsa 
TGI Staff

Gottman, John, and Joan DeClaire. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Parenting: As Your Kids Grow Up

In Monday’s blog posting, we provided parents of newborns (and expecting parents!) with some tricks to rid yourselves of stress in your own relationship and in your relationship with your child. In today’s post, we’d like to offer you some exciting conclusions reached by Dr. John Gottman in his research on families with older children, in hopes that it will keep that stress away beyond babyhood.

The mountain of parenting studies piled up by researchers over the years has created the idea that any conflict between you and your partner must be entirely hidden from your kids. Imagine putting such an idea into practice. It would be totally impossible! Luckily, this idea is not only completely impractical, but also utterly wrong.

Conflict is a natural part of any intimate relationship. Dr. Gottman’s research on this subject may come as a welcome relief. He has discovered that as children grow up, their ability to cope with emotions is strengthened not by conflict avoidance between their parents, but rather by the example that you and your partner can set in your healthy acknowledgement of negative emotions. The efforts that you make to work through inevitable differences with your partner in a loving and accepting way will accomplish two things – strengthening your relationship with one another and with your child. In the most formative years of your kids’ lives, exposing them to emotionally intelligent styles of conflict resolution is scientifically proven to do wonders for their future success. Once formed, it seems that the habits your children pick up from you stick. It’s like learning to ride a bike - through an argument. Which, as we all know, can be a pretty useful skill.

Remarkably, this phenomenon also works in the opposite direction. Dr. Gottman’s research on the effects of healthy parenting has shown that an awareness of your own emotions and those of your children dramatically increases a couple’s connection. Feelings of companionship, affection, fondness, admiration, and general happiness about their marriage were shown to increase for couples who taught their children to work out areas of conflict in a healthy way. These couples also showed less of a tendency to treat each other with belligerence, contempt, stonewalling, and other chaos-inducing behaviors. As those of you with children know, chaos is to be avoided at all times! There is always enough chaos.

If you and your partner become Emotion Coaches, Dr. Gottman’s term for couples who engage in healthy methods of problem solving, you stand to benefit enormously both in your own relationship and in your relationships to your children. Watching their parents treat each other with respect and understanding teaches children essential life-skills applicable constantly throughout their lives. From the sandbox to the classroom, they will have learned crucial skills in dealing with their own emotions and those of others in a healthy way.

Cultivate an empathetic, validating, and affectionate environment in your home, and increase not only your children’s trust and awareness of their emotions but the connection between you and your mate. In Friday’s post, look forward to some simple exercises that will help you and your mate to become better Emotion Coaches. Raising children can be the most incredible experience of your life, and the number of lessons you teach your kids may be surpassed only by those that they unexpectedly teach you. Looking forward to keeping your life full of only the best kinds of surprises in our next blog post! 

For further information on Emotion Coaching and emotional intelligence, check out Dr. Gottman's "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child" and also be sure to check out our YouTube channel:

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Monday, June 4, 2012

Parenting: Avoiding Relationship Meltdowns

This week, we’d like to give a shout (or a cry, or even an adorable wail) in the direction of all the parents out there. Today’s post is specifically for expecting parents and those of you with newborn babies. Though they can be the most beautiful, amazing, and blissful addition to your lives, babies can also set off an explosion in your marriage, making it especially important for new parents to focus on their relationship after bringing their baby home. Today we will give you a few tips from a section on becoming parents from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, luckily located in a chapter called “Coping with Typical Solvable Problems!”

As Dr. Gottman explains, the following tips can help you in accomplishing the greater task at hand, namely expanding your sense of “we-ness” as a couple. Regrettably, research on new parents has revealed that, although a newborn may create positive or negative changes in your relationship with your mate, the majority of mothers (70 percent) experience a steep nose-dive in marital satisfaction, while a father’s dissatisfaction grows as a reaction to his wife’s unhappiness. As anyone with a tiny baby knows, such a vulnerable little creature is an enormous responsibility. Your newborn may excel at creating strains on your relationship through the difficulties of sharing responsibility, sleep deprivation, economic stress, and the seeming impossibility of making time for yourself, let alone spending time and energy focusing on your relationship.

For Dr. Gottman, the most interesting finding in his research on the transition to parenthood was not why 67% of new mothers feel so miserable, but rather why the other 33% seem to go through the transition without a hitch. In his study, which followed 130 couples from their newlywed stage to as long as 8 years afterwards, he managed to make some fascinating headway into the mystery. Dr. Gottman’s results were stunningly counter-intuitive.

Bizarrely enough, given common beliefs about the difficulties of the transition to parenthood, what separates blissful mothers from the rest is not a baby’s ability to sleep soundly, nursing style, or amount of time parents spent at home. The main determining factor is whether or not the husband joins his wife on this deeply emotional and demanding journey.

The arrival of your adorable baby often comes with a variety of not-so-adorable problems. With stress levels running high in a totally unfamiliar situation, there may come a variety of difficulties between mother and father. As the mother becomes suddenly aware of her deep, selfless, and endlessly protective love for her child, her life inevitably goes through profound changes. A husband who does not accompany her through this transformation may feel left behind.

Though he feels the same love for his child, he may sense a growing distance developing between himself and the incredible bond between mother and child. The only way to solve this problem is for him to follow her into the new realm she has entered. The following tips will help those of you who are new parents to navigate this crucial time, by working on your sense of “we-ness” as a couple:

Focus on Your Marital Friendship: Before the arrival of your baby, work on your love maps. If you didn’t get a chance to do this, take the time now to learn more about your partner and their world. This will help you to feel like a team, and make the transition into parenthood together, maintaining your close connection with each other as well as your new baby.

Don’t Exclude Dad from Baby Care: Have you ever seen a video of a mama wolf guarding her cubs? Adorable and slightly intimidating, this behavior is not entirely unlike that of human mothers. Despite a father’s desire to be involved in caring for the baby, it is unfortunately common for new mothers to feel overprotective. “Don’t bounce her like that, you idiot!” “Stop tickling her feet, she’s crying!” In the interest of avoiding this undesirable barrage of directions from an overcontrolling mother, and stymie their growing feeling of incompetence, fathers often have the understandable urge to run for the hills. They willingly relinquish their parenting position to Baby Expert Mom.

The Solution to This Common Problem is Simple: Give Dad a little credit. Unless his approach is really unsafe, there is no reason to exclude him from the care of your baby. Giving him official roles, such as Offical Burper, Official Lullaby Singer, etc., will make him feel much more connected to both mother and child. As Mom begins to feel more comfortable, and more exhausted, let Dad take over some responsibilities. He can take shifts taking care of the baby to let his wife take a much-needed break, go out, see some friends, and rejuvenate herself.

Let Dad be Baby’s Playmate: Innumerable studies have confirmed that women and men differ in their methods of connecting to the baby: Women are generally more nurturing, while men tend to be more playful. Playing with a helpless baby may seem to many men as a recipe for disaster, which may lead them to feel superfluous at this time in their child’s development. In reality, as fathers who spend time with their babies know full well, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Babies smile, laugh, wriggle in delight, and make absolutely charming and endearing playmates. Being sensitive to Dad’s needs and desires will help him to feel much more included as an indispensible part of your new family.

Carve Out Time for the Two of You: Spending time away from baby can be incredibly difficult. Though it may be secondary to focusing on your child, the transition to parenthood should always involve some focus on your relationship with your mate. Find a trusted baby-sitter or a friend or relative to take a breather, and take a break for a moment! Don’t worry if you spend your dates talking about your little one. This is totally natural. Simply taking a bit of time off for yourselves, sharing your feelings about your shared experience of this often confusing and stressful time, and showing each other affection will keep your connection strong.

We hope these suggestions will help your relationship flourish, both with each other, and with your newborn! Remember: the best gift that parents can give their newborn is a healthy partnership. Look forward to Wednesday’s blog post, where we will continue our discussion of parenting, and give you ways to enrich your bonds with your child as they grow, while maintaining a deep connection as parents.

All for now,
Ellie Lisitsa

TGI Staff

Gottman, John, and Julie Gottman. "The Art and Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples" Workbook. Seattle: The Gottman Institute, Inc., 2000-2011. 100-103. Print.